When we come to Mass on Ash Wednesday among the very first words we hear are these from the book of Joel: ‘Now, now – it is the Lord who speaks – come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning.’ The first call to the Christian community on that awesome day of the year is a call to repent.
In Lent each year many of us make personal resolutions for this special and grace-filled time of the year. It might be a luxury or favourite food to give up (meat, for example), and it might be some extra act of charity or devotion. These help us concentrate our minds on our relation-ship with God and hopefully prepare us as we examine our consciences and go to confession.
A task for every Christian is to deepen our personal encounter with Jesus and individual acts of self-denial and charitable giving are a very good way to do this. But one of the problems with sin is that it can take us unawares; and a danger in Lent is that we can tell only half the story of what the season is about. If we focus entirely on our personal acts of penance and faith, we can easily see our Lent in purely individualistic or even selfish terms; it can be very insidious. Satan is always looking for ways to get us to push other people out of our lives, even if we think we’re growing closer to God; but Lent insists, from the word ‘go’ in the first moments of Mass on Ash Wednesday, that Lent always has to be about being part of a community, part of a group, part of the Church.
God through the prophet Joel wants people to come together to repent, not seek forgiveness on their own. Later on we hear: ‘Order a fast, pro-claim a solemn assembly, call the people together, summon the community, assemble the elders, gather the children, even the infants at the breast.’ We always ‘do’ Lent as part of the Church, even if we’re housebound and living alone; it has to be a community exercise; it’s a good antidote to the poison of individualism in the Church, in our society and in the world.
I remember during the General Election campaign in December thinking that a good and simple message for the churches during the campaign would have been a very simple one: ‘Repent! Turn away from sin!’ People were (and still are) fond of remarking, with a lot of accuracy, about the rancour and nastiness of public and political life in recent years, and the election campaign showed this ‘in spades’; but we almost developed a fatalism about it, a sense in which it was wearily inevitable. From a Christian point of view this is ridiculous. Things happen for a reason – actions have consequences and each one of us is responsible for our actions – indeed going to Confession in Lent is the best way of facing up to our responsibilities. I think at various levels the churches failed to call people to repentance or denounce sin.
So that means there’s no time like the present! In Lent we should be able, at the very least, to call two communities to account, to repentance. The first is ourselves: as a Church we can’t call others to repentance unless we recognise our own faults; indeed one reason others listen less to us than in the past is be-cause of our failings, the ways in which we have been hypocritical. The ongoing worldwide child abuse scandal is the most glaring example of this, and it shows no signs of going away (what is likely to be a damning report about Catholic boarding schools is due out later this year). Pope Francis has called on us to see in the pain and humiliation (and of course what the Church suffers is as nothing compared to what survivors or abuse have had to endure) a way to become a better Church, to abandon the abuse of power, the clericalism, the misogynism and self-pity which allowed these terrible crimes to happen and be tolerated for so long; but this can only happen if we discern the sin and insist on transparency and accountability; and to look at the whole world, not just the Church in Europe and North America.
Awareness of the sinfulness and failure in our own community doesn’t let us off the hook of challenging the rest of society. If people in Britain are more racist, suspicious, selfish, aggressive, militaristic, nationalistic, untruthful, competitive and fearful then this has to be said; sins have to be named. This is the consistent message of Joel and the other Old Testament prophets and of Our Lord himself, and the Church is called to be prophetic. We ask the Holy Spirit for the grace of discernment in our own lives; we also need the grace to discern wickedness around us. The picture above is of the annual act of witness by Christians each Ash Wednesday at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. The man on the left, presumably before being arrested by the man on the right, is daubing the wall of the building with ash, as a call of repentance: this act, led by our Catholic peace organisation Pax Christi, is a particular religious challenge to the depravity of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrent policies; and a good example of how a community such as ours, acknowledging our own sinfulness, can denounce sin and evil in the world and call people to turn back to God.